One Man Cries Peace In a Land of Massacres
NAIROBI, KENYA — In an African country where conflict is often resolved with a gun, Moses Bigirimana has chosen an odd career: professional peacemaker teaching the futility of violence.
His message of choosing life over revenge has been especially poignant in his native land of Burundi, where a frenzy of eye-for-an-eye ethnic violence has left some 50,000 dead since 1993.
Mr. Bigirimana, a Quaker, began his mission of peace in 1993, when a group of ethnic Tutsi officers in the Army assassinated the first democratically elected Hutu president.
That assassination, compounded by the outbreak of similar Hutu-Tutsi killings in neighboring Rwanda, has sparked continued massacres.
At the time, Bigirimana, a Hutu, was training 15 pastors-to-be when armed Tutsis raided the dormitory and murdered 11 of his students. One Tutsi went hunting for him, but he escaped. The massacre pushed Bigirimana into preaching peace at nearby churches.
"If you kill one person, then those who belong to that person will plan to eliminate you or your family," he says. "With revenge, you are ... creating more death."
Bigirimana is a rarity in Burundi. Five percent of the population is Protestant; even fewer belong to the pacifist Quakers. Most people in Burundi are Roman Catholic. But it is his ideas and willingness to stand up for peace that make him stand out.
Last summer, he organized a two-month seminar on conflict resolution for young men and women in the town of Gitega.
Bigirimana's students, most of them Hutu, carried a strong sense of injustice. Many had quit school for fear of being killed. Soldiers sent to "guard" schools often help Tutsis kill their Hutu classmates; both educational institutions and the Army are dominated by Tutsis, who make up 14 percent of the population.
Burundi's recent history is full of repression by Tutsis of Hutus, who make up 85 percent of the population. In 1969, 1972, 1988, 1993, and 1995, there were purges of educated Hutus by Tutsis. "They are angry. They don't understand how all Hutus can be refused the right for schooling," says Bigirimana. "Nobody is there to say, 'This is not good.' So they have to find their own justice."
Many seek justice through the armed wing of Leonard Nyangoma's radical Hutu party, the Council for the Defense of Democracy. His rebel bands are engaged in a civil war with the government, led by Maj. Pierre Buyoya who staged a bloodless coup in July 1996.
Instead of violence, Bigirimana preaches patience. "With patience everything can be changed, and it is our responsibility to change."
He also gave his students another peacemaking strategy, one that has saved his own life: Remain friends with members of the opposite ethnic group.
Last summer at an Army checkpoint, a Tutsi soldier told Bigirimana to lie on the ground, a sign that he was about to shoot. But a crowd of Tutsis who used to pray with Bigirimana had gathered. "When they realized I was going to be killed, they started to cry," he says. The soldier, bewildered, told Bigirimana to get up and leave.
In March, he organized another peace seminar with other church leaders. He included one special guest: the Tutsi who tried to kill him in 1993.
Last month, he left Burundi to join his fiance in Nairobi. But he plans to return to teach "people to keep their senses instead of killing."